It’s 25 years since the events of 1989, a year that not only changed Eastern Europe but the world. In December of that year, in Romania in the former Eastern Bloc, the choice was limited: to go out into the streets to fight for freedom or pray for it.
There had been 42 years of Communist dictatorship, under the repressive rule of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. Through self-serving megalomaniac projects and draconian internal policies to finance them, life conditions in Romania had reached a point of no return. The basic needs of the people – light, water electricity – became rare privileges. The Secret Police, the Securitate, reigned supreme. It’s thought that more than two million people who denounced the regime, among them many intellectuals and political activists, lost their lives through incarceration or forced labour. The ones unaccounted for, simply disappeared.
Encouraged by the upheaval that had shaken Europe months before, (the Berlin Wall fell that November), Romanians united in their protest for the human rights they had been denied : to eat beyond meagre food rations, to emerge from the darkness of a candle-lit existence, to think and to speak.
It all started in Timisoara, a city in west Romania, with protests against the unfair eviction of Làsló Tökés, a pastor speaking out against the government. Bucharest followed and soon the mass revolt covered all the major cities. The army joined the people: a few days later the Ceausescus were tried and sentenced to death by firing squad: they died on Christmas Day.
The price for freedom was dear: more than a thousand dead, and as many wounded, the majority of them students and youths. To this day great mystery surrounds the circumstances of those deaths. Nobody has ever known who shot at the revolutionaries, and voices have even questioned whether the revolution was real or just a well-orchestrated front for a coup d’état.
Today, Romania seems to have come a long way. Despite a string of failed economic reforms, it became an European Union Member in 2007 and opened its gates to and from Europe. With a rich cultural heritage and well-preserved natural environment, it’s a steadily gaining ground as a tourist destination. The colourful posters on the London Underground testify unabashedly – and correctly – to a ‘land of choice’.
This journey, from then to now, was the theme of a recent evening at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London. Their main guest was Ion Caramitru, a celebrated Romanian actor – and the choice was far from random. Caramitru is a former revolutionary. In 1989 he was one of the voices at the forefront of the people’s revolt. When the country’s TV station fell into the hands of the people, Caramitru was among those first at the microphone. As a result, he stayed at the helm of the country for over a decade, as Minister of Culture in three different cabinets. He witnessed the country’s journey from dictatorship to democracy from the inside out.
The ICR invited him to meditate on the last quarter of the century, in an evening of poetry and music. He was accompanied by a young Romanian virtuoso pianist Sergiu Tuhuţiu, well accustomed to the London cultural scene.
Although a considerable number of non-Romanians attended, there was something charmingly Eastern European about the gathering, that had nothing to do with the national flag fluttering above the entrance. It was a formal event, but a formality that meant more than getting dressed up to the nines and socializing. Its resonance went back to the time when art was the ultimate retreat – the only place to forget about the cold flats and power cuts and the political realities of the Ceausescu regime. Nobody embodies this better than Caramitru, always an ambassador for his country. His Hamlet performance is still remembered internationally today, he’s been the director of the Romanian National Theatre since 2005, and was awarded an OBE by Queen Elizabeth II.
Because of the setting, Caramitru spoke in English, though with some difficulty.
He recited Hamlet while Tuhuţiu accompanied with Chopin and Beethoven, and everybody understood. The succession of spoken words and music put Caramitru and Tuhuţiu in a dialogue, one between youth and age, the past and the future. Caramitru is in his 70s, Tuhuţiu a young man. One’s grey and bears the brunt of a censored past and great disillusionment. The other has a fresh face and a brilliant career ahead. The country itself is at this very crossroads, for this anniversary December coincided with the Romanian General Elections. The new president, Klaus Yohannis, a representative of the German minority, could not be a more radical choice.
A question hung over the evening, as vital, in its way, as ‘To be or not to be’: ‘Was there or wasn’t there a real Revolution in 1989?’ Caramitru gave his blunt answer: ‘The Revolution did not succeed!’ he said. Just a battle, not the war was won that night: Ceausescu went down but the regime lived on: ‘The most orthodox communists are now the wildest capitalists.’ When English became too restrictive, Caramitru burst forth in Romanian, and delivered with pathos verses of great Romanian poets: Eminescu, Sorescu, Stanescu. It was a different register altogether: the eyes of the audience sparkled, as if he had been sharing a secret with dear friends… All of a sudden, the ex-pats knew what being Romanian really meant.
The evening ended with applause and Caramitru’s thanks – brought from Romania, he said – to the country’s diaspora: it was their unprecedented vote on November the 16th, he said, their willingness to wait as long as 10 hours out in the cold, that had brought about such a radical change of government. ‘People at home have grown tired…The oxygen you sent them was an incredible thing … Now, Romania is closer to the truth than ever before’.
For a top up of national identity, ICR definitely does the job. For answers, one has to look within and at each other. This time around, ‘To be or not to be’ is second only to Romania’s strong potential for change.
A View to a Fall: Celebrating 25 Years without Communism with Ion Caramitru, was organised by the Romanian Cultural Institute, London.